Midfield control has been the hallmark of Barcelona for a long time and that control became an iron grip during the four years of Pep Guardiola’s management that began in 2008. The club have largely followed the same template of dictating play by moving the ball effectively in the middle of the pitch.
And the style has been hugely successful for the side as they have collected six league titles, four domestic cups and three Champions Leagues in the last eight years. However, the team’s midfield grip appears to be slipping as they struggle to create the kind of triangles and passing rhythms that deflated opponents and delighted fans in equal measure.
The team’s play was not just about passing the ball effectively when in possession but it extended to getting the ball quickly off the opposition whenever it was lost. The speed of dispossessing the opponent was at a premium, in fact, Guardiola had constituted a six-second rule which emphasised that after losing the ball the players were not supposed to drop back but instead press the player in possession and those who offered him a passing outlet in order to get the ball back at the earliest opportunity; preferably, within six seconds of losing it.
Guardiola left the club in 2012 and since then the Catalan outfit has been through three managers. Each manager bought his own style to the mix, but one philosophy remained consistent: dominate possession. One can look at the stats from any of Barcelona’s game and that constant would stand out. Yet, it is clear as day that despite keeping more of the ball Barcelona are struggling to dominate midfield or string the sumptuous array of passes to create goalscoring chances.
So what’s ailing the Barcelona midfield?
4-3-3 has been the default formation for the team, with Sergio Busquets sitting deepest of the three midfielders, primarily playing the role of destroyer. Xavi Hernandez was the midfield distributor while Andres Iniesta was the creative fulcrum during the Guardiola years right until the 2014-‘15 campaign under current manager Luis Enrique.
The twin tasks of Busquets of being the shield in front of the defence as well as passing the ball into open spaces make his role extremely important for the team. It also requires exceptional reading of the game as well as skills of execution that is beyond most players. It is no surprise that supreme players like Yaya Toure and Javier Mascherano, to say nothing of Alex Song, have failed to play that role at the club.
So it came as no surprise that Barcelona were completely unrecognisable in the early parts of the season as Busquets struggled to replicate the form that the club faithful had grown accustomed to over the course of his eight years in the first team.
It is fair to say that the club have not signed a direct replacement for Xavi. The seemingly innocuous role that the midfield metronome played was essential in keeping the ball moving and the opposition chasing shadows. Ivan Rakitic has bought a different skill set to the fold with his focus more on creating chances than keeping the ball moving. He had been effective in his own way in his first two seasons at the Camp Nou but even his form has deserted him this campaign.
With two of the key personnel not up to mark, there is only so much Iniesta can do. Still one only has to look at this season’s Clasico where he played a 30-minute cameo to see how vastly different and effective Barcelona are with the little magician pulling the strings in midfield.
‘They don’t grow on trees’
Back when Barcelona had a seemingly unending supply of club-trained youngsters to bring to the senior fold, Guardiola had famously remarked “they don’t grow on trees”, highlighting that a lot of effort and long-term planning goes into training youngsters who are capable of making a seamless transition to the senior team.
In Barcelona’s current situation, someone like Sergi Samper would have been expected to take the next step and make a case for himself in the first team but instead he is out on loan at Granada. The lack of youngsters capable of transitioning into the first team should be a cause of concern for the club bosses.
Ineffective summer signings
Barcelona’s problems have also been compounded by some superfluous summer purchases. Andre Gomes arrived for a princely €35 million with some absurd add-on clauses in place to likely take that sum even higher. He was never a standout at a largely mediocre Valencia and as such his struggles in the Barcelona midfield are not a big surprise.
Rafinha Alcantara is talented but is inconsistent, and given the current disarray in midfield, the club bosses would be hoping they kept hold of Rafinha’s elder brother, Thiago, who is flourishing at Bayern Munich.
Denis Suarez is another summer signing but his game is not about keeping possession in midfield but more about being a creative force near the opposition box. And he has shown flashes of brilliance but will need time to seal a regular spot. It does not help that Suarez’s direct rival for his preferred role in the team is Iniesta.
Did Enrique deliberately employ a more direct approach?
Barcelona have a forward trio that will be the envy of any team on the planet. A forward line of Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi has a legitimate claim for being regarded as the best trio of not just modern times but perhaps all of football history.
In the given circumstances, any coach would be tempted to get the ball as quickly to the forwards – completely bypassing the intricate midfield build-up – as possible so as to maximise goalscoring chances. And Enrique has been no different. The plan seems to have worked in the past two campaigns as the trio racked over 250 goals in all competitions in their first two seasons together.
But as they have struggled to replicate the same form this term, the midfield problems have become exacerbated. A fully-functional midfield would have been able to do collectively what the individuals have struggled to achieve. But unfortunately for Barcelona long-standing strengths have been sacrificed on the altar of short-term success.
Paco Alcacer is a prime example to illustrate Enrique’s thinking. The forward was brought in from Valencia in the summer but we are in January and he is yet to open his tally for the Catalans. As a pure No. 9, Alcacer was probably seen as a primary option off the bench when one of the front three needed a break. However, the limited skill set of the young forward has only highlighted how ill-suited he is to the Barcelona set-up.
Nevertheless, at one game short of the halfway stage of the season, Barcelona remain in touching distance of Real Madrid, who sit atop the league table. The Catalans have everything to play for but they may just end up empty handed at the end of the season if the fundamental issues are not addressed.